Silica protections 'badly outdated,' liberal groups say

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is working through more than 2,700 responses from business, labor and environmental groups about a rule that would protect workers from exposure to silica dust.

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Labor and environmental groups say the rule would provide much needed protections for these workers. But business groups argue the rule would lead to job cuts and hurt the economy.

In comments filed with OSHA, Public Citizen, a liberal advocacy group, said the current silica rules are "badly outdated."

"We believe it is crucial that OSHA adopt the most protective standard with respect to silica exposure," wrote Keith Wrightson, worker safety and health advocate at Public Citizen.

OSHA estimates the rule, which would cut in half the amount of silica dust that companies can emit, would prevent 700 deaths each year, mostly from construction and manufacturing workers who face higher levels of exposure to silica than workers in other industries.

Public Citizen called on OSHA to move forward with the rule without delay. Before OSHA published the rule last August, it had been awaiting review at the White House's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs for more than two years.

But the Center for Progressive Reform (CPR), another liberal advocacy group, expressed disappointment with the rule as it is currently written, arguing it is weaker than when it was first proposed.

One of the requirements is for employers to provide medical surveillance to workers who are exposed to certain levels of silica dust. That means they have to pay for physical exams, so occupational diseases caused by silica can be treated early.

But OSHA raised the level of silica that workers much be exposed to before employers have to pay for these medical exams, CPR notes.

"Obviously, both changes make the proposed rule less protective of workers — and less costly for employers," CPA scholar Tom McGarity and CPR analyst Matthew Shudtz wrote in a blog after they submitted their comments to the agency.

But the U.S. Chamber of Commerce called for the rule to be withdrawn, arguing it would be too expensive for companies to comply with while placing them at a disadvantage against foreign competitors who don't face the same rules.

Furthermore, the Chamber said the rule was unnecessary. It said the number of occupational deaths that silica has caused has declined "dramatically" over the years. In 2007, there 123 silica-related deaths, down 93 percent from the 1960s.

"Even this low number of silica related deaths must, can, and will be prevented in the future," the Chamber wrote in comments submitted to OSHA. "However, there is no need for, or benefit from, this OSHA rulemaking."

OSHA originally proposed the silica rule last August before twice extending the deadline to file comments. The deadline expired Tuesday evening, but not before 2,749 groups and individuals filed comments with the agency.

OSHA, which also plans to hold a series of public hearings beginning March 18, is required by law to review and take into account all of the comments before it can move forward with the rule.

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